What People Living on Less Than $1 a Day Taught Me About Money

Four years ago I had the privilege to fly halfway across the world with HELP International and live in a small house with sixteen other people for 6 weeks. The house was infested with cockroaches and there weren’t nearly enough beds for all of us, so a handful of us slept on the ground. One night I did a test and sprayed a line of roach killer on the floor around my sleeping pad. When I woke up, there were a few dead cockroaches next to me. It made me shudder to think how many were crawling all over me while I slept. The house had no couches or chairs, no air conditioning or hot water, and we had to hire a cook to save us from eating anything potentially dangerous. It was definitely an eye-opening adventure coming from such a cushy lifestyle in America.

When people typically think of Fiji, they think of white sandy beaches, clear blue water, beautiful grass skirt-clad islanders and perfect year-round weather. We definitely experienced those while we were there, but the reason we were there was to work with the people you don’t think about when you think about Fiji—children with sores all over their bodies because of malnutrition; mothers with respiratory and eye problems because their kitchen consists of an open fire inside their home; people who have the desire to better provide for their families but are severely limited due to the social, political and infrastructure restraints.

Among the things we did was we taught business and women’s health classes (I quietly excused myself during the latter); helped them learn square-foot gardening, providing seeds for several different vegetables to diversify their diet and teaching them how to dry seeds for future seasons; and built adobe stoves with chimneys to make cooking safer and more efficient. It was a life-altering experience for me and, even though I thought my sole purpose in going there was to help them, I found myself learning more about life, money and my purpose to the point that I felt I was getting more help than they were.

Where there is a will, there is a way

To give you an idea of how some of these people did financially, one man I spoke with told me that there was a mine in the area that employed most of the men who lived in the surrounding villages—that is until they found out 10 years previously that their mining was releasing toxins into a nearby river. The mine was shut down and the government offered a lifetime severance pay for each worker of 60 Fijian dollars a month, which is roughly $30 USD. The problem is that this man had a wife and four children, meaning the whole family was living on about $1 a day. And with no other big employer in the area besides Fiji Water, who employed a good number of people from the villages, there aren’t many options.

But they still survived. They worked in the sugar cane fields for a pittance. They built what they needed with their bare hands. And mostly, they lived off the land. They had no other choice. It makes me think of my experience with unemployment earlier this year. Sometimes we start to hyperventilate when we lose a little bit of financial stability. We dread losing comfort and convenience, and some of us start looking to others for help as the first option rather than as a last resort. Obviously the conditions and costs of living are different in the states, but realizing that there are people in this world who are able to survive with much less can help give you the confidence to find your own way to make things happen.

You can give no matter how much you have

Billionaire Jon Huntsman, Sr. once wrote, “If you don’t give when you have little, you won’t when you have a lot.” One time, when we were teaching a women’s group about how to start a business, a woman who already had a small convenience store asked about what she would need to do to take her business to the next level. Her small store made very little, enough to provide for her family, but not enough to get to where she wanted to go. We started to ask some questions about how much of her profits she reinvests in her business and found out that she was giving almost all of her extra cash away to other people who had less. I was shocked. My first instinct as the guy teaching the class was to ask her what the heck she was thinking. But as soon as that initial reaction faded, I was just amazed.

Here is this woman whose family lives in the same type of hut as everyone else in the village. They’re barely scraping by every single day and have nothing leftover because she gives it all away to people less fortunate than her, and she does it gladly. Amazing. Now, when I think about the small amount we save every month and compare it to where we want to be and wonder if maybe we’re setting too much aside for charitable donations, I think of this woman. No matter how poor I think we are, there is always someone less fortunate than us. Giving doesn’t always have to be about money. There are many ways you can use your time and other resources to make an impact, and by doing so when you have little, you’ll actually be able to help your own situation.

We’re all different, and that’s okay

One of the biggest shocks I had as a personal finance enthusiast was to see all these people who were living on barely anything watching television, toting around cell phones, and hanging out at expensive internet cafés. But over time I came to realize that they had different priorities than I did. They had cell phones to communicate with family members who lived on other islands. They watched television and frequented internet cafés because it was exciting to see what was going on in the outside world. Is that so bad?

One of the biggest problems facing humanitarian aid organizations is the fact that organizations from Western countries move into a different part of the world and try to push their values onto the people there because they are “better”. I mean, we have more money and better lives, so that means everything we do is obviously better, right? If they all lived like us, we’d all be happier. When it comes to budgeting, I’m always trying to find ways to cut my expenses based on my values and what I’m passionate about, but does that mean I have to do judge someone else based on what I think is best?

In reality, personal finance is just that—personal. There is no perfect way to live, no perfect culture, political system, or way of living. And there’s also no perfect way to handle your own personal finances. Sure, there are guidelines, but the only reason I would “judge” someone based on their finances is if their habits are hindering them from doing the things they hold most important. And really, we’re all bad at something when it comes to our finances, so instead of being a hypocrite, just realize that we’re all different and that’s okay.

Have you had any experiences working with people in developing countries? What are the things you have learned from them?


22 thoughts on “What People Living on Less Than $1 a Day Taught Me About Money

  1. When you live in a bloated and rich country like the U.S., it's hard to believe that people live on less than $1 per day anywhere. But they certainly do.

  2. I try to keep our food budget at $1 per serving, and I find that very difficult. And that's not taking into account shelter, transportation, etc. It's very eye-opening to see the disparity between the Western norms compared to poorer countries. Gives a major perspective check.

    1. lol there are plenty of other creepy stories where that came from. I felt like I was in a horror movie sometimes when I was stalking them. But yeah, that perspective has really turned me on to the idea of me using my circumstances to help improve the lives of other people who aren't as fortunate. It's exciting to think about!

    1. Thanks! That experience changed my my entire perspective on life and, like you said, how good we've got it. I look forward to taking my future children on similar trips 🙂

  3. Hey Ben, I love this post. And, yes, I've had experiences working with people in developing countries. We've done a lot of outsourcing at my job. However, we always make it a point to pay more than the country average, so our freelancers love us! It's amazing how humble people can be. We had one that was in the Philippians during the big storm. We asked her if she was OK and if there was anything she needed. She didn't ask for money, she asked for more work. She wanted to earn the money she needed to assist her family, even if that meant working 18 hours a day. Of course, we sent her some money for relief. It's just amazing how humble people in poor countries are and how much they appreciate the little they get.
    My recent post I’m Back! Did You Miss Me?

    1. Yeah it really is crazy. Sadly, Western “aid” has conditioned some people to look for handouts. We asked the Fijians about interest in learning how to dry fruit in case of floods that wipe out crops and some of them said there was no need because they'd just wait for the relief boats that would bring food. But the majority of them are very self-sufficient and there's no self-pity.

  4. I always love reading about other people's experiences in third-world countries. When I first moved to China, it still was on the fringe of third-world (and parts of it certainly still are) — but was fascinating to watch it change over the 5 years my family lived there.

    The quote by Jon Huntsman is great. It's amazing to me how people at lower ends of the income spectrum are often much more willing to give of themselves and their money than those towards the other end. I guess part of it probably comes down to how you were raised.
    My recent post Loosening My Purse Strings

    1. What was your family doing in China? That sounds like an adventure 🙂 Its true. Some people here are raised with an attitude of giving and some are raised in the attitude of “me”.

  5. When I was a high school senior, I spent a week in Tijuana, Mexico with my religion class the same week as Thanksgiving. Originally we were all complaining about the timing of the trip, but as we spent time with the families there, we realized just how blessed we are. One thing that struck me was the happiness and joy in people's hearts, despite living in poverty. You don't see that kind of joy in the Financial District!
    My recent post Use Credit Cards Wisely and Stay Away From Debt

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